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The pas de deux of 'Pippin' at the Mark Taper Forum

January 18, 2009 |  8:52 am

Troy_kotsur_and_dan_callaway With Deaf West Theatre, it often takes two people to play one role: a deaf actor who signs and provides the character's face and a hearing actor who provides his voice. To pull this off requires performances as well-rehearsed and executed -- not to mention intimately intertwined -- as a pas de deux. One example of such a partnership is Troy Kotsur and Dan Callaway's Charlemagne in the Deaf West revival of "Pippin," which opens Jan. 25 at the Mark Taper Forum.

Though Callaway has never done this before, Kotsur is a Deaf West veteran known for his free-flowing imagination, physical dexterity and a sense of rhythm that allows him to nail musical numbers -- even though he can't hear.

Here's how Kotsur, 40, and Callaway, 31, created their character and prepared to perform the complicated patter song "War Is a Science," in which the king plots his next big battle.

Defining Charlemagne

"The king is deaf and has power ruling his kingdom communicating through American Sign Language," Kotsur says. He also is afflicted by "some kind of madness and dwells on war -- like Patton or Bush."

Acting the part

"I have to keep in mind not to throw all the energy away and stay in control," Kotsur says. In translating the song's lyrics into theatrically effective American Sign Language, he tries to reflect both content and


subtext. "The king keeps his chin up, indicating he knows what to do by showing everything's under control and he has a plan. The king shows his true colors by showing madness (the signs get bigger, then smaller, then bigger as the pace quickens) but constantly gets his act together in showing that everything's under control (the signs get slower). He is excited but then goes back to 'everything's cool.' "

Finding the voice

"I came in having seen John Davidson in 'Man of La Mancha,' " Callaway says. "I kind of copied him, but I threw that out once I saw Troy. I did something younger and more normal instead. Troy is the focus for

the role and, although we collaborate on the lines, it is his vision of the character, what feels right to him. Providing his voice is very easy because he has such an expressive face. He gives you everything you need and more."

Preparing for 'War'

Most of "Pippin's" actors learned to sign their lyrics by studying videos made by actress Linda Bove and interpreter Alan Champion, who translated the script. Given his experience and penchant for improvisation, Kotsur was allowed more freedom. "I didn't want to sign their signs," he says. "It's like someone else telling you how to deliver a line with a specific mood. I preferred to develop my own choices of signs with Linda's approval."

Once rehearsals began, Kotsur says, "tweakings occur until the opening of the show. Props, lighting and costumes may have an effect on my ASL work and performance." Deaf since birth, Kotsur has to memorize rhythm patterns and relies on cues from cast members -- a nod here, a nudge there -- to tell him when to stop or start. "If I go off one beat, I'm in trouble. So it's crucial to stay on the right track along with the music. Or if the musicians are off, I won't be able to adjust with them. I just continue what I memorized and the music will have to get on the right track."

Putting it together

"The first time we staged 'War'  was the first chance I had to see what Troy's signs were," Callaway says. "I tried to match as many as I could. But spoken English and American Sign Language are two different languages. You have to figure out how to get them in sync." Fortunately, he adds, "Troy gives you everything. You kind of lock into his mind and he's there. Early on, he said, 'We are going to be one.' It's like telepathy."

Giving and taking

"I like to play and try different things," Kotsur says. "I also enjoying feeding energy to other actors and react to their reactions during scenes. Dan is able to play too. While the intonation in the voice expresses its mood, it needs to match how I deliver in American Sign Language along with my facial expressions and body language. He follows what I express. There are times when the director, Jeff Calhoun, likes to keep how Dan expressed a line with his voice. Jeff makes suggestions to me about how to match Dan's delivery. It goes the other way around as well if Jeff sees how I express a line and makes suggestions to Dan to deliver it a certain way."

"It's crucial to be able to work together like this to see what works for the character because we are dealing with two cultures.  For instance, there are jokes in spoken English for hearing people to catch on, but for deaf people, they might not catch on if I don't express it right in ASL.... That's why I improv to just try different things to find what works."

--Karen Wada

Caption: Troy Kotsur and Dan Callaway in "Pippin." Credit: Christina House / For The Times